Chicken Spa Day
Last time I wrote about the chicken chores here at the farm, and today I’m going to tell you about a few other somewhat embarrassing things we do to keep the ladies and gents healthy and happy. Chickens are very good at keeping themselves clean and healthy, and a good part of their day is spent grooming and preening their feathers. They also take dust baths and sun baths as preventive measures to keep naturally occurring external parasites such as mites and lice under control. They scratch and peck the ground in search of tasty morsels to eat, and in so doing this typically keeps their toenails worn down to the appropriate length. But despite these beneficial chicken behaviors, every once in a while we need to help them out a bit to keep them as healthy as they can be.
During the colder months, we conduct monthly inspections of our chickens to monitor for the northern fowl mite, a common parasite in wild birds that can be easily spread to backyard poultry flocks. The northern fowl mite is a bloodsucking parasite that can have many adverse effects on a chicken including anemia, decreased egg production, decreased ability to withstand and overcome other diseases, and even death in severe cases. When we had backyard chickens for two years, we never had a problem with mites, but since moving to the farm where the chickens have much greater exposure to wild birds, mites have become something we have to deal with. We start inspecting the chickens in the fall which is when the mite population tends to increase. I round up all of the chickens into their 10 foot x 10 foot secure run, which typically takes much calling and bribing with treats. Then one by one, my husband will catch each hen and hold her in inspection position so that I can examine her vent. Mites, being the unpleasant critters that they are, tend to congregate near a chicken’s vent, which is the hole under their tail where everything that comes out of a chicken comes out. I lift up the chicken’s tail, part the feathers, and look for mites or their eggs at the base of the feathers. Regardless of whether mites are present or not, all the chickens get a thorough application of diatomaceous earth around their vent and under their tail and wings which helps prevent the mites from getting established. Then every hen gets a few meal worms as a treat, and I record my observations in my chicken record keeping book. This gets repeated for each and every hen and rooster, and typically takes about an hour and a half to do the whole flock.
While doing the mite inspection, we also take note of any other issues that may need addressing. If a chicken feels lighter in weight than usual, I make a mental note to keep an eye on her to make sure she is eating and acting normally. Occasionally I will go in to the coop at night when everyone is on the roost and feel each chicken’s crop (the pouch in their lower neck that stores food before it is digested) to make sure everyone has a full crop for the night. It’s also a good idea to make sure that the crop is empty in the morning which indicates the chicken has digested her food overnight as is normal, and this is also something we check for during monthly inspections.
Occasionally a chicken will get a very long toenail or two that is for some reason not getting worn down during her daily scratching activities. If a toenail has grown so long that it is preventing her from walking normally, we have occasionally trimmed a toenail with a dog toenail clipper. Then there are the rooster spurs, which are quite another matter. Most of our boys have grown very long spurs which curve back around toward their leg. There are a few methods of trimming rooster spurs, all of which take more effort than trimming a toenail. Ramon’s spurs are the longest, and we did recently trim off the tip of one spur which was threatening to start rubbing on his leg. We used a small hack saw to cut off the tip, which was not the easiest thing in the world to do as you can imagine. Luckily, Ramon is a well-behaved boy, and he did not object much to this strange procedure. We’ll need to do some further trimming of his spurs as well as Brown Rooster’s spurs in the coming months, so I need to figure out the easiest and most comfortable way of undertaking this strange task. I did a lot of research before getting chickens, and I thought I knew everything there was to know. Nowhere did I read that I would have to give my chickens pedicures, but I don’t mind, it’s just one more of the interesting things I’ve learned how to do in my chicken keeping journey.